Hailey city staff will go to work during the next few months on changes to an ordinance to create conditional-use criteria for new schools in the city. Supporters of the proposed Syringa Mountain School will be in the loop, and hope to meet the new conditions in time to open a new school in Hailey in the fall.
“I have to believe you have a Plan B,” Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said to Syringa Mountain School representatives Wednesday at City Hall, after the second highly emotional meeting this week about requirements for building a new charter school in the city.
Haemmerle called the special meeting Wednesday to discuss a potential moratorium on design review applications for new schools after the Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday denied an application by the Syringa Mountain School to build a 35-foot-tall school building for up to 280 students on a strip of land at the southern side of China Gardens subdivision.
Schools are a permitted use in Hailey’s General Residential, Limited Business and Business zones.
The application, denied on the grounds that the plan would jeopardize public safety, health and welfare, set China Gardens residents and Syringa School supporters against one another in two meetings that overfilled City Hall with concerned citizens.
The school has 11 days left to appeal the P&Z decision.
China Gardens residents and city leaders repeatedly stated that they did not oppose the Syringa Mountain School in particular, but were concerned about impacts the plan would have on the surrounding neighborhood.
“The existing neighborhood [China Gardens in west Hailey] has a right to know that it won’t change overnight,” Councilwoman Carol Brown said Wednesday.
But after hearing impassioned pleas by school supporters, the council backed off of imposing a moratorium.
City Attorney Ned Williamson said the special meeting was called by Haemmerle within the required 24-hour period because unresolved traffic and pedestrian concerns in the Syringa plan posed “imminent peril” to public health and safety.
School representatives and parents of already enrolled students showed up in force, delivering heartfelt speeches in support of the school and Waldorf-style education in general, to a City Council they said was allied against them.
“This moratorium is a knee-jerk reaction that does not reflect well on our city, or on our leadership,” said fourth-generation Hailey resident Scott McGrew.
“There are no imminent threats to public safety, but there is now an imminent threat to the Syringa school,” said attorney and former Hailey Planning and Zoning Commissioner Michael Pogue.
“This is not the community I thought I lived in, and not the community I want to live in,” said Ketchum resident and Syringa Mountain School spokeswoman Laurie Wertich.
Council members then took turns addressing what they said were the true reasons for concern over the Syringa application, and new school applications in general.
Councilwoman Martha Burke said the effort to build the Wood River Middle School many years ago took three years of planning.
“We did this to make sure this was a ‘neighborhood school,’ so that the community would foster the location of the school,” Burke said.
Haemmerle said a proposed daycare center with only 13 kids would trigger a conditional-use permit, and questioned why the city wouldn’t require more scrutiny of a school that could hold as many as 280 students.
“When you draw that many people into a neighborhood, the city needs to have control of this,” he said.
The Syringa Mountain School is planned as a new charter school that focuses on Waldorf education methods. According to school representatives, 130 students are already enrolled for classes next fall in a school that has yet to be built. They said 40 of those students are set to transition from the private Mountain School near Bellevue, which is scheduled to close this summer.
Several families who plan to enroll their children at the Syringa Mountain School have moved to the valley for that specific reason, school representative Mary Gervase said.
The council voted unanimously to call off further discussion of a moratorium and instead work on amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance that would make schools a conditional use at any site in the city.
Haemmerle said conditions would include criteria to measure traffic flows and assess potential impacts that schools’ special events and other issues could have on surrounding neighborhoods. He said the process could take three to four months, during which time the Planning Department would work with Syringa School representatives on a site that would accommodate their plans.
Syringa School board member Ben Rogers said in an interview that a site in Woodside might be considered. He also said the school’s board of trustees would decide Wednesday whether to continue pursuing the China Gardens site.
“We would be very much interested in working with the city, but I also wonder why we’re held to different standards than other schools,” Rogers told Haemmerle at the meeting.
Haemmerle said the city would work with the applicant to try to meet its fall deadline, but that only good planning on the school’s part will allow for success.
“If you have no Plan B in two months, you have no reason to expect that the school will be open in September,” he said.